Red-light cameras divide Crestview residents, experts

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By Aaron Jacobs | @cnb_ajacobs |

CRESTVIEW — The approval of a red-light camera program in Crestview has drawn mixed reactions from residents and experts.

The City Council approved the program by a 3-2 vote March 12. According to the Crestview Police Department, cameras will be installed at two or three traffic signals and may take months to implement.

A red-light camera is an automated system that takes photographs, usually from multiple angles, of a vehicle that has entered an intersection when a traffic signal is red. Law enforcement officials typically review the photographs and determine whether a violation occurred. If the vehicle is found to be in violation, a citation is typically mailed to the owner.

James Walker is the executive director of the National Motorists Association Foundation, a driver’s advocacy group that opposes red-light cameras. He urged city officials to reconsider the program.

“Your residents and visitors will despise the program and will quickly understand the cameras are about money, not safety,” Walker said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by insurance companies, disagrees. It cites studies that point to a drop in the number and severity of crashes in cities where cameras were implemented.

Although city officials have not disclosed the locations of the red-light cameras, one of them almost certainly will be installed at U.S. Highway 90 and State Road 85, the city’s busiest intersection. Intersections where part of the areas is in unincorporated Okaloosa County will be off limits. 

$158 per ticket

Crestview Police Chief Tony Taylor disagreed with the claim that red-light camera programs are more about revenue than safety.

“This is a safety program that will address a very serious problem,” he said. “Right off the bat, the state claims more than half of each fine levied on red-light runners, so it’s definitely not a moneymaker.”

The state of Florida receives 52.5 percent of the funds from each ticket, leaving cities with the rest. For each $158 ticket, $70 goes to the state’s general fund, $10 is sent to the Department of Health Emergency Medical Services Trust Fund, and $3 goes to the Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund. That leaves $75 per ticket for the cities.

Crestview will pay two private companies — Roadwatch Inc. and Sensys — to install and administer the cameras. If the system does not generate enough tickets, the program will lose money.

Citing a drop in revenue from the program, Tallahassee ended its red-light program in 2015 after five years. City officials hailed the program as a success, claiming red-light violations declined by 90 percent or more at traffic signals where cameras were installed. As of 2013, Tallahassee had collected only $500,000 of the $6.3 million generated by the program.

A 2014 study by the state Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability found that 78 percent of municipalities made money from the program after paying vendors and operating expenses. Only 16 percent reported not making enough money to cover the costs.

If the program is profitable, Taylor has said Crestview should establish a Public Safety Trust Fund for equipment and safety programs for first responders. 

Safety concerns

Critics of red-light camera programs claim they don’t make intersections safer. They argue that an increase in rear-end collisions due to people slamming on their brakes to avoid a ticket offsets a decrease in side collisions.

“At least two of the annual reports on the for-profit red light cameras show increased crashes at camera intersections,” Walker said. “More crashes is not an indication of improved safety — it is the reverse.”

A 2014 report by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles supports that claim. Sixty percent of cities that provided crash data reported an increase in overall crashes at intersections with red-light cameras.

Joe Young, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said his organization has found that red-light cameras reduce the most dangerous types of crashes.

“Our researchers concluded that the fatal red-light-running crash rate was 30 percent higher in cities that deactivated cameras than it would have been if the cameras remained on,” Young said in an email.

“In one study looking at Arlington, Virginia’s camera program, a year after installation of cameras, the most dangerous type of red-light running (occurring more than 1.5 seconds into the red phase) had fallen 86 percent at intersections with cameras.”

While Tallahassee ended its program after a significant decrease in violations, Jacksonville, which also ended its program after five years, cited a lack of money generated and no definitive proof that it reduced crashes. 

Mistaken identity

Red-light camera traffic citations are mailed to the vehicle owner, even if he or she was not driving the vehicle when the alleged infraction occurred.

Camera critics claim that makes it easier to dispute a ticket, which can cost local governments and people time and money in legal costs. The Floriad Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles found that more than half of contested red-light camera tickets were dismissed in the jurisdictions it surveyed.

Crestview Police say there are exemptions to the law allowing for red-light programs, including one that covers instances of someone other than the registered owner driving the car.

“When in doubt, throw it out,” will be the guideline, Taylor said.

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